When the Tap Runs Dry

All photos and story ©Peter Bennett – all rights reserved.

Sometimes your life can change with a clunk! Last spring, Donna Johnson, 72, of East Porterville, a small community at the eastern edge of the Central Valley, ran out of water. She hoped it was a problem with the pump or something a few feet of digging would fix, “it’s a hard issue to admit to yourself that your well has gone dry” Donna told me. She brought out someone to look at the well, but when the pipes went down and Donna heard that clunk, she knew the awful truth.

Donna Johnson delivers bottled water to local residents of East Porterville whose wells have run dry
Donna Johnson delivers bottled water to local residents of East Porterville whose wells have run dry

Shortly after that, Donna attended a city hall meeting where she found out that she was not alone, other wells were running dry. Groundwater depletion has become a major issue in the San Joaquin Valley as a three year severe drought has dried up lakes and rivers, and farmers who have not received any of their normal water allotment, have been forced to drill down into the groundwater to keep their crops alive. The issuance of water well drilling permits in Kern County is at a record high and in some areas the ground has actually sunk ten or more feet as a result of the dried up aquifer.

A Trailer park resident in East Porterville
A Trailer park resident in East Porterville

When it was apparent that the local city bureaucracy was not going to step up either with water or low interest loans for new well drilling, Donna stood up at the meeting and declared “we may not be a city, but we are a community” and with that promised to go door to door to find out exactly how many of her neighbors needed help.

Donna Johnson delivers bottled water to local residents of East Porterville whose wells have run dry
Donna Johnson delivers bottled water to local residents of East Porterville whose wells have run dry

Donna spent almost every day (and some nights) of the next six months delivering water to those in need. At first she used her own money to fund the venture, then when some local and national news stories broke of her work, donations came pouring in from various companies and organizations. While a local fire station offered non-potable water from a huge barrel it placed on the street, for many Donna became the only source for their drinking water. Something we all take for granted, free, drinkable water was not there, the taps had run dry.

The local fire department in East Porterville provides water to residents
The local fire department in East Porterville provides water to residents

Loading cases of bottled water into the back of her pickup each day, Donna heads out with the day’s list of deliveries. On the afternoon I tagged along, a young boy named Matt helped with the heavy lifting. Each stop we were greeted by eager faces that contained both smiles and that look of sadness that says they we’re sorry to have to even be in this position.

One whole family comes out to meet us in a trailer park community, our first stop. A young girl plays on a swing while her grandfather looks on, his confederate flag baseball cap shading his gaunt and withered face, a testimony to a life of hard work and hot sunny days. Matt and Donna unload the cases while everybody talks. They ask Donna if they can have some additional cases as does everyone we visit during the day. We never really think much about how much water we use on a daily basis, much less a two-week span, which is what this family will have to wait until Donna’s next delivery to them. Trying to plan out a family’s drinking and cooking water needs for two weeks is almost impossible, especially when doled out in small bottles. Donna always gives them more when they ask.

Vicki Yorba, 95, shows a photo of her front lawn in better times.
Vicki Yorba, 95, shows a photo of her front lawn in better times.

92-year-old Vicki Yorba, a long time resident, holds up a photo of her lawn when it was actually green, now it is as dusty as the small unpaved street she lives on. Her home has many other photos and relics of her family and life in East Porterville, and like everyone else I talked to, she has never seen a time like this. Out of the 7,000 or so residents of East Porterville, about 1,000 wells have run dry. The randomness of it is confusing as one person may have a dry well, while their next door neighbor’s well flows just fine. Water tables and groundwater can be unpredictable and it is no more evident than here in East Porterville.

Donna Johnson talks about how the wells ran dry


Donna and I drive up to Lake Success, the local reservoir, to see if the previous day’s rain, the first of the season, has made any difference. She tells me that she has never seen it this low, that it actually has dramatically decreased since her last visit a few weeks ago. “There was boating, and my husband used to windsurf in this the lake”, Donna tells me as she points to where they lowered the boat ramp as the previous one was several hundred feet above the water line. Now even the new ramp is far from the water and no one boats on the lake anymore anyway. Lake Success is supplied by the Tule River and everyone is hoping for a good rainy season and a large snowpack in the Sierra so the melting spring snow can help replenish the lake and all the other reservoirs and rivers in the Central Valley.

Lake Success, a reservoir and dam along the Tule River, is at extremely low levels

Lake Success, a reservoir and dam along the Tule River, is at extremely low levels

I called Donna last week to see if things had improved since the rains in December. She told me some wells have come back but that other ones have run dry and the total number of dry wells are still about the same. The Lake is even lower and will need a lot more rain to even start to get back to normal levels. Donna is still making her deliveries but she has slowed down a bit, exhaustion has caught up and the county has stepped up a bit to help as well. I’ve met a lot of community heroes in my work and I have to say Donna is up there at the top, her energy and commitment have helped so many in her community when there was no one else who would. Pray for rain!